Crabs with heads coming out of the shadows. Fresh seashells hang from dark ceilings, waiting for the chance to lure unskilled creatures into their habitable paws. The incredibly mysterious G-Man, who comes in and out of our universe like a knife cutting through the skin.
The course of terror has always run through the Software Half-Life series. And with Half Life: Alix, a developer from Seattle, had the opportunity today to amplify his fears by increasing the intensity through the illusion of a real physical presence.
Last week, in preparation for the launch, we sat down with Valve artist Tristan Reidford and designer Dario Casali to talk about how VR emphasizes horror, the responsibility that comes with working on your favorite show after all this time, and why the worst zombie is the one you can’t see.
This interview has been slightly modified for reasons of length and clarity.
Disgusting: Bloody disgust is clearly a place of horror. So, I wanted to ask you, it’s Half Life… Is Alice scary?
Tristan Reedford: I am very much influenced by horrors and fears, especially erratic fears. And there are parts of this game that I don’t dare to play. I mean, that’s what we were very responsible for in the game. For example, that we certainly involve the actors. But it’s a scary game, I’m sure.
Dario Casali: We have tried to avoid the shocking and terrifying jumps, and we use a kind of mood and environment, an atmosphere and a kind of tension to develop them, instead of trying to provoke an immediate heart attack. Although there are probably a few places in the game – there is a certain place in the game that I have called the heart attack. But it’s just a place.
BD: One of the first things I noticed in the trailer for the opening in November was that it looked scarier than the previous games, partly due to the change of perspective that VR brings with it. For example, when a crab jumps on you in a game, it actually jumps in your face. Were there ways to use VR to get the horror out of you that you didn’t do in the previous semifinals?
TR: Horror is a low fruit for VR. Games used to appear in that little window in front of you, that [portal] to another world. But once you put the helmet on, it’s all around you. Maybe now there are things behind you that would never happen. In the VR you get them for free. It’s immediately frightening. I remember that before we ran the engine, we had made some top class zombies after the 4 dead 2 on the left, and we put them in a room, just static models, around you, and they were right in front of you, and it was horrible. But if you turn around to see them, the one from the peripheral view is the scariest one in the room, not the one standing in front of you. So our job was to be responsible for the horror with this new super-low fruit.
DIRECT CURRENT: The directness of the scales, the feeling that you are really there and that your body is involved, not only the movement of your fingers and the screen in front of you, that little portal to the world, it doesn’t take much to create that feeling of fear; of what, frankly, comes around the next bend. It’s a little dark here and there. Because all that sound is very spatial. So you hear a little noise in the corner of the darkroom. And in a game with a flat screen it wouldn’t be very useful, but if you feel that your body is there and the bets are real because of the size of things, as you say, with a crab ham jumping in your face. I had no idea how big a crab was until I put it in a camper and realized that this thing is actually the size of a dog or something.
They are pretty scary, just because of their presence in the world, and that presence is very delicate in VR, so yes, we didn’t have to work too hard – in fact, in many cases we probably lowered the level of anticipation or horror that some regions might have. Simply because the players came and had some reactions they didn’t like, and in some cases they took off the helmet and talked: I don’t want to play anymore because I’ve seen this creature in the dark and now I don’t know where it is. That’s why we’ve tried to maintain certain limits, so we’ve certainly had moments of tension and anxiety, but we’ve tried not to go beyond them, not to push some users.
BD: This certainly sounds like VR and horror, it has gone a bit far.
DIRECT CURRENT: Absolutely. Your whole body’s involved. You bend and lean and stretch, and when the whole body is involved, you really feel that there is an effort. And the giant six-footed zombie in front of you, you don’t want him around. While the flat screen is fine, you have to throw hundreds of zombies at the player on a flat screen to make him feel overloaded. But a real zombie in a small room with you is all you need.
BD: Are there other ways to change your approach to VR aircraft design? As a level designer approaching the development of a VR half-life game, did he have a different opinion about releasing a level from a flat screen game?
DIRECT CURRENT: That’s right. So the degree of loyalty we have in the world is a direct result of the fact that players want to come and see everything. And the speed of the VR is more like a normal walking speed you normally take. When watching video games, many of these speeds travel at around 30 miles per hour. But if you take things on a human scale, we have discovered that much of the world’s loyalty is condensed into more realistic spaces. So the considerations we should make in the VR were very similar to how much space people want to cross because we don’t have vehicles. We don’t have very fast things that can make people sick. It’s about where you can go. So it has been taken into account.
The other consideration was of course: What experience has been gained? What are interesting impressions, funny impressions in VR? And they can be very different from flat screens because you work with your arms and your head and they all have six degrees of freedom and they all have to work as you expect because you don’t have such a complicated keyboard in places where you have six different keys or twelve different keys that all do different things. It’s an intuitive interaction. For example, how do you open the door? Now all you have to do is pick up a pen… …and you turn around and push the door instead of pressing the use button or whatever. If you apply that to all the things that happen to you in a game you’re involved with, it’s a completely different design process.
In terms of interaction with opponents and so on, it’s more like normal FPS games. We just modified the AI so it wouldn’t overflow. We tried to use the fast zombies and fast hats in Half-Life 2, but they move so fast that players overwhelm them too quickly. We have a rather complex reboot system; it’s not enough just to press R to reboot. It’s like we don’t have all these keyboards, it’s actually a simulated physical movement, so if someone tries to reload the weapon with some nice real movements, and they are attacked by an incredibly fast monster at that point, everything collapses. So yes, there are a number of considerations in the transition from traditional design at the FPS level to design at the RV level.
BD: Have you both worked on a Left 4 Dead series?
DC and TR: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
BD: The last time the game Half Life was released, you didn’t make any of the Left 4 Dead games. So are there things you learned from the 4 dead that could bring you back to the world of half-life?
TR: Maybe we built a world in the Left 4 Dead series. There was a lot of work in the vaults to write all those messages the seniors left behind. And Half-Life 2 has that too, with the subway and so on. But in Left 4 Dead we learned that this is not always the case for players. And so, like Dario-san said, we went as if the player wanted to see all parts of the world. We’ve tried very hard to bring a lot more of those things into play, I think to tell non-critical stories that tell a bit of context or put something in the mood. On one side of the horror there are the monsters attacking you and so on, but there are the dead bodies and the static things that are just as fascinating and disgusting as the monsters, because you can get up and look in their coffin like a dead zombie. And he doesn’t do anything, and it’s just ew. It’s bloody disgusting.
DIRECT CURRENT: We’ve been working a lot on Left 4 Dead on visceral reaction, which means that if you shoot something, it reacts in a way that was far from Half-Life. I think that was a pretty important part of the Left 4 Dead experience; just the feeling of going through a ton of bodies with powerful weapons and, unconsciously or not, we certainly put some of that into Half Life: Alice, where the characters would react very realistically… if they were shot. There is certainly a combination of physics and Ragdollan animation that makes it a reward when you spin something. Especially when some of the most powerful weapons are involved or when explosions take place.
TR: In particular, there is a joke between the characters of Left 4 Dead 2, and we have something more in Half-Life: Alix too, between Alix and Russell, that’s like leaving Half-Life 2 where Gordon said nothing. I don’t know if we did it on purpose, but yes, we certainly did it again in this game. And it was very successful in Left 4 Dead 2, I think of the way the characters talk to each other.
BD: So I guess when people think of half life and horror, they think of Ravenholm What aspects of Ravenholm, as experts in design and art, have made this game so memorable and terrifying for players?
DIRECT CURRENT: I actually worked really hard on Ravenholm in Half-Life 2, so I’m glad you asked that question. For this part of the game we used tension and fear much more than large-scale action sequences. We had a lot of darkness and noise to make the player think the city was bigger and scarier than it is; we used enemies like a poisonous zombie crab; a guy who looked like a cow. He was all bent over and he had this brain on his back and he threw it at you. I think we’ve only had one or two of these guys on each level so far, but we’d use beeps to make you uncomfortable before you saw him.
And we introduced you to the crabs he threw before we introduced you to him. And you’ll think about it: Oh, shit! Those crabs were bad enough, but now we have one that throws them at us. So we used the same ideas in Half Life: Alice, where we try to present what happens in a few minutes or a few seconds with some kind of sound elements and some kind of environmental story or some kind of atmosphere.
And we have some examples in Half Life: Alice. There is a special room, namely a large hotel, which has been ruined not only by the combine harvester but also by Xen. And you come into this area, and the first thing we do is play digging sounds, and you have this very long corridor where there is nothing but a flowing hood with a big bright light on the other side; you don’t know what you’re getting into. The further you go, the more time you invest in building the scene and not throwing enemies at the player, so you only reinforce this anticipation. What is this room? I think anticipation is a big part of the feeling that fear, instead of jumping, scares people, it’s like something you don’t do, I think it’s something powerful and staged. And as you get further into the area, you see a large, sort of evaporated part of the structure, where underneath this very dark, with Xena’s ravaged basement, where small scary slopes crawl. And you don’t want to go, you don’t want to go. You look up and you understand: Oh, that’s where I have to go. But in the end, of course, we get you into that disgusting black zone, crawling with enemies. But it only works because we prepare the beginning, and you don’t exaggerate by entering these scary elements, and you let the player fill in all these gaps. It’s been tested pretty well, so… A lot of attention has been paid to this specific aspect, voting control, precisely because it is so powerful in VR. It doesn’t take much time, as we discussed, so if you really focus on the target area, it’s pretty powerful.
BD: Does this approach apply to other aspects of the tone of the game? What about humor? In the game’s video, people have noticed that you have shown that it is more fun than other semi-living games. But I think that when people think of comedy in games, they think of games that are exaggerated and often make lame jokes, and maybe one in ten will be a hit and miss the rest. Was there an approach to humour and play similar to that of winning jokes?
TR: I don’t know if this is a joke. This is mainly due to the performance of Rhys Darby as an actor. He looks like your playmate, and you really feel alone in this game when you immerse yourself in it. And it is just super convincing to know that there is another person, even if it is a fictional person, who hangs around and talks about these things. I feel like his humour is a little fragile, like he’s trying to comfort you. It’s not like a joke machine, it’s like coming back a little nervous and going to this awful place with you and Russell; just a terrible place to be. And since you’ve invested in the story, the player wants out. But, as Dario says, when the mood starts to build up and horror starts to appear, it’s just great when that voice in your ear gently cheers you up and there are a few fragile jokes between you. I think the authors did an incredible job with this book.
DIRECT CURRENT: They are particularly good at what they have shown us in previous product tests, which have shown that the player goes through this game and feels that there are these moments of tension and excitement, and they wanted to solve them somehow so that the pace is not so high. So most of the letter was a reaction to that tension, and I think humour was a big part of it. And it is these authors that I have been working with for many years, they have done a lot of work on the portal and on the Left 4 Dead, and they seem to understand exactly – I think because of this return – what was needed, and they have done a very good job. And we also have some kind of environmental humor. The first half-life was much more difficult, for example with regard to the environment and the humour of the situation. Half-Life 2 has, I think, deviated a bit from that, but something has definitely come back in this product.
BD: City 17 seems even more despotic in half-life: Alix than in previous games. What gives the impression of being an intimidating and authoritative place in the field of design and art?
TR: From an artistic point of view, we knew the state of the world in Half-Life 2 and we knew we were going back in time a bit because we are history and we wanted to show earlier versions of some of the things you can learn from Half-Life 2. But we didn’t want to go as far as telling that complete story because some players can come up with their own story, and we wanted to give the player a place for it. But again, I think that if you play the game in the city and there are still people running around to do their thing, maybe even more than today [with the Kovid 19 crisis], it seems that. But then, when you enter a so-called quarantine zone, which seems [appropriate], you get to the point where you go through the door, and then the state of the world changes completely. So I think you like the formal impression of the combined invasion and the way they’re trying to deal with that impression. They’re not here yet, but you can see how they’re doing. But as soon as you leave the capital and enter the quarantine zone, the impression changes completely. Because then all the aliens and all the monsters will appear. You’re still in town 17, but there are maybe two or three very clear actions in the game.
DIRECT CURRENT: We have done a lot of work to develop the atmosphere of the city throughout the game, as Alyx is essentially on his way to this structure called the Warehouse, where the Combine’s secret weapons are stored. So, the more Alix gets into the game and gets closer to that object, the more he attracts the combine’s attention, and that’s how the escalation happens. For example, in the beginning it’s quite safe to move around, and as you begin to experience more resistance, you’ll have to deal with an increasingly dark environment where you’ll have different enemies of different heights, and as you get closer, the environment becomes more surreal and unusual. So we tried to make you feel more and more where you shouldn’t be while you’re still playing.
TR: And as we do in the world, the player’s skill in the game is like he’s really going up a rather striking slope. Your ability to manipulate weapons, to face different enemies, so as the game progresses, you get better and better as the game gets busier and darker. I think both things are working very well.
DIRECT CURRENT: You are more comfortable with all your mechanisms and tools to deal with the scale of the threat.
BD: So, since we’re a horror site, I have to ask: Is it scary to release a new Half-Life game after all this?
DC: [laughs] I think there’s a certain humility associated with working on this IP, which is, hey, we really want to do a good job, and we really want to let go of something that people like to play. And it’s still a very frightening prospect. Moreover, the fact that she was in VR made her happy. It’s like a new frontier in mid-life IP learning, and I think it gives us a lot of interesting and fruitful results from our work. It’s just that the VR platform worked very well, even for Half-Life. So working on another Half-Life game is part of the fun of working on another Half-Life game, which will be the big selling point of Half-Life 3? We had such high sales compared to the previous and major innovations and big differences in Half-Life 2 compared to what was available at the time. And I think VR is giving us something that this time will take away some of the horror you leave on these tracks. What do we do now? And I think VR is an excellent answer to that question and I think we have seen that it has brought us a lot of innovation and a lot of enthusiasm for franchising.
TR: I think we never ran out of ideas, and a lot of our ideas were hard work and required a lot of iteration and game testing. But as the project develops, we need to become increasingly convinced that it’s going to be a good thing and that we can release something that respects the fans who are waiting for the next Half-Life game, and as now, if things go well, the music comes, the experience goes well when you play it. For example, I haven’t played for months when the game started. I’ve been working on different parts of this thing… …but I set it up and played the first few levels and it really touched me. Just to see that everything is in place, all the animations of the choreography, all the music, all the sound, all the tempo. So, yeah, I don’t think I’m really scared. I’m high.
BD: Well, as I recall, the first game you worked on at Valve was Half-Life 2:. Episode 2 ?
TR : Yeah, I built some models for that.
BD: So I can imagine that you will be happy to return to this world after you have started it at the end.
TR : Yes, very much so! In the past 12 years I’ve had a lot of things I really wanted to do for the next semifinal. And it was like a kid in a bakery when we started working.
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